Andy Murray powers through Novak Djokovic to first Dubai final
British No1 Andy Murray becomes the first man to beat world No1 Novak Djokovic in 2012 with 6-2 7-5 victory in the Dubai semis
At the opening of the 20th playing of the Dubai tournament, it was voted the most popular 500 event of the year. So perhaps the players decided that a perfect semi-final line-up would go some way to repaying the care that is lavished upon them from the moment they land in Dubai to the moment they leave.
Of course, the real reason for the blockbuster semi-final day was simply that the remaining four were—arguably—the biggest talents in the draw.
Between them, they brought to the proceedings a 53-6 win-loss record and a title apiece in 2012. But to add drama—if more drama was required—there was some revenge to be sought in both matches.
Less than a fortnight back, Juan Martin del Potro lost to Roger Federer in another 500 event, in Rotterdam, his third straight defeat at the hands of the world No3 since returning to the tour from wrist surgery.
Before that, however, the Argentine had got the better of the Swiss at the World Tour Finals and in the final of the US Open. This week, both men had lifted their games higher even than in Rotterdam, and the fast Dubai conditions promised fireworks.
But the first match promised fireworks interwoven with intrigue, pitting as it did world No4 Andy Murray against No1 Novak Djokovic for the first time since their Australian Open semi-final. There, Murray was on the receiving end of his second Melbourne defeat at the Serb’s hands, but this year it took just 10 minutes short of five hours for Djokovic to close it out 7-5 in the fifth.
Last year, too, Murray very nearly became the first man to halt the Djokovic unbroken run in the semis of the Rome Masters, a three-hour three-setter that went the Serb’s way in the final tie-breaker. Then in the summer, Murray won the Cincinnati title after Djokovic was forced to retire—and three times before, Murray had beaten his friend in hard court Masters.
So the stage was set: on one side the three-time, and reigning, Dubai champion, unbeaten this year; on the other, a man carrying just a single loss in 14 matches this year—to his opponent in Australia.
With the advantage of serving first, Murray went on the attack with more determination than in any of his previous matches this week.
Initially, it was Djokovic who held his serve the easier—he opened with two love service games—but come the fifth game, Murray thwarted the Serb’s attempt to take the initiative at the net and held serve strongly with a rapier-like forehand pass down the line.
It boded well: Murray was on the front foot and moving like quicksilver. The sixth game saw him win his first point on the Djokovic serve and, courtesy of a flurry of errors from the Serb, won four straight points and the break.
Murray’s serve then also came under pressure—helped by a double fault—but, facing two break points, Murray raced into the net and put away a wrong-footing stop volley, then out-sliced Djokovic on the backhand. This was the confident, aggressive Murray who has so often shone in the hot, hard-court Masters and it took him to a 5-2 lead.
He hit out at Djokovic again with a great defence-turned-attack from the backhand wing. A forehand drive volley error from the Serb handed Murray three more break points and he took the second with a Djokovic-style rally of deep, crisp backhands to the baseline, finishing off with another rush to the net.
The set was his in barely 30 minutes, 6-2, and the stats were mighty impressive. He lost just one point on his first serve, and was serving at 71 percent—and it got better.
There was a real buzz of excitement as Murray strode onto court with his one-set lead: a palpable sense that Djokovic’s 18-match unbroken streak in Dubai might come to an end very soon.
The crowd was certainly not disabused as Murray quickly pressured Djokovic again. Having flirted with disaster on his opening serve—firing one easy volley well long and striking a second onto the side line—Murray went after Djokovic on his first serve. The Serb tried to attack the net but was confronted by Murray returns that dropped at his feet to draw two errors, and another wild backhand gave Murray a break point. One long rally later, defending like a man on springs, he was 2-0 up, and consolidated with a hold to 15.
The momentum then began to shift just a little as Djokovic halted Murray’s run of six games with a love hold of serve, and still looking take the net when he could.
If there was a chink in the Murray armour, it was his second serve—though there had been few of them thus far. In the first set, he scored only one point from seven second serves and the same pattern persisted in the second set. Come 5-3, serving for the match, a double fault was followed by a second serve that drew a scorching backhand return from Djokovic. It gave the Serb two break points and he grabbed the first, and then drew level on serve, 5-5.
Now the crowd began to chant “Nole” as they sensed a comeback, but Murray showed commendable composure to hold the next game with four unreturnable serves.
He sensed, it seemed, that this was a second bite at the cherry. He first forced Djokovic back from the net with a lob, next he returned a backhand to Djokovic’s feet, then he outplayed the champion in a teasing baseline rally to earn two match points.
A big Nadal-like forehand return of a second serve did the job: the match was Murray’s, 7-5.
It would be easy to talk of Murray’s stats—of the high standard of his serving, of taking four of the five break points offered, of winning points from almost half of his returns—but that would not give credit to the style and the assurance of his win. He came into the match looking confident, played with a combination of aggression and patience, and kept his focus even after he saw one chance to serve for the match slip away.
Perhaps Djokovic did not play at his best—there was certainly a scattering of unforced errors from his side—but the match proved what their semi-final in Melbourne had hinted: Murray is not just able but ready to take on the best, and win.